Pure Vowels

What are pure vowels and why talk about it?

I’m always drawn back to things I have read in singing treatises of centuries past, and one of the most frequently encountered is the admonishment to clarity of pronunciation.  I find that people who are reluctant to make friends with opera frequently use as the excuse for their distaste that you can’t understand the words (regardless of the language being sung in).  Generally speaking, these opera naysayers are people who enjoy pop vocal music of all sorts.  Though I’m by no means expert in the realm of pop music, I can’t find the diction anymore distinguishable in pop music, and it is arguably, at least to me, far worse.  I think back to the gift given me last year of a Radiohead album (given me by a classical singer who is a genuine enthusiast for the dynamic group).  I could barely discern 10% of the text on a first listening.  And this in vocal music which rarely climbs out of the range of an octave, much less the two plus octaves required of an opera singer.  So what is it these anti-opera folk are hearing as poor diction?

Over the holidays, we had a great variety of music appreciators in our house for parties, from Met performers to choral giggers to avid listeners to poets.  All are concerned with words and communication through the medium of the voice and through words.  All are concerned that the words be clear.  But one young collaborative pianist asked me whether I thought one should learn the text of a song or role first, or the music?  I replied without pause that I think a great singer learns the music first, and then the words.  Since the general method encountered in conservatories is the reverse, why would I make such a reckless statement?

Consider the most famous libretti by the most famous opera librettist of all time, Pietro Metastasio.   Top of the list would be Alessandro nell’Indie, Artaserse, Didone abbandonata and L‘Olimpiade.  Not counting librettos derived from Metastasio’s, there are at least thirty settings of each of these works (and most of Metastasio’s other works were set nearly as many times).  So, if we are learning Hasse’s version of one of these operas, as opposed to Galuppi’s or Gluck’s, what is it we are learning and attempting to express?  Are we learning and expressing the libretto the same way again and over again?  Most certainly not.  We are learning to express the text of the opera, which is to say the  music by Hasse, Gluck or Galuppi (or thirty more).  Metastasio’s work has become the subtext.

The argument extends even further if we consider the care with which talented vocal composers set words for desired effects.  Great composers of every century have worked with great artists to achieve the performance of their works, and a Handel, for instance, would work with the best singers when possible.  If we study how Handel wrote, it becomes clear that if he wanted a gentler, more flutey effect up in the passaggio of a singer’s voice, he set the note on “u” or “o.”  If he wanted brassy brightness, he set the same note on “ah” or “i [ee].”  This quite apart from the kind of vocal acrobatics (or lack of same) he might use to highlight a text.  Therefore I contend that if we are not striving to sing the pure words, the argument is to be made that we are not performing the music.  We are performing something else (and, usually, what I find we are performing is the love for our own voices!)

On closer examination, good vocal composers make these distinctions in all sorts of classical repertoire.  We must bear in mind that they were creating settings for singers who were trained to deliver a good two octaves, and, until the past century, I can’t find that singers were taught to compromise vowels.  It is difficult to make the same argument for most popular song, because its vocal requirements (span, or tessitura) are usually much more narrow than that required of classical singers.

If we are not expressing the words, then are we really performing the song, or aria or role?  Of course, something could be said for creating a timbre that is expressive of the music at the cost of purity of pronunciation, and here we get into an interesting set of choices between the demands of the words and the demands of the musical character, not to speak of the demands of the line:  does it want to be smooth, or sharp?  How much vocal pressure should we exert in response to the words before we have compromised the musical line?

Is singing not an endlessly debatable activity?


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  4. Capsiplex says:

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  5. Drew Minter says:

    Judy — You are so right about what the students actually DO. I was referring to what I encounter they are TAUGHT to do (have you ever seen the BU Tanglewood sheet for how to learn a song? That’s what I was referring to. Sorry I was not clear!)

  6. Judith Malafronte says:

    I agree that “a great singer learns the music first, and then the words” and is always presenting their interpretation of the text THROUGH THE MUSIC, but I’m surprised that you say that “the general method encountered in conservatories is the reverse.” I find most students work on their texts as an afterthought.

  7. Drew Minter says:

    Rick! So happy to see that you’re doing Jam sol recedit on your next concert– I LOVE Horatio Parker — so sorry some of his hymns got canned when the Hymnal was revised.

    Larry — you make an excellent point. At some point I’ll take up the subject of vocal acting (and acting while being vocal!) The most poignant and intelligible moment I saw almost any singer create was made by Sills as one of the three Donizetti queens (can’t now remember which) by just tapping her finger very deliberately on the side of her chair while the rest of the cast screamed their heads off!

  8. Larry Rosenwald says:

    Great topic, great posting from Drew! Especially important to me: that in evaluating the Radiohead cd Drew talked, not about the shape or purity or projectedness of the diction, but simply about the bottom line: how much of the text was intelligible? That really is the most important thing, in many context at least, and it’s often not the same thing as whether the singer is producing the right vowels and consonants.
    If one made a list of singers who were wonderfully intelligible, it’d be an interesting list, and maybe not the same list as the list of singers distinguished by their pure or classical diction.

  9. Happy New Year, Drew!

    I just had the pleasure of reading through the first entries in your Blog. I am quite sure that I will be back for more, and it made me think of our time together at the Cathedral. You’ll be interested to know that I have launched a Boy Choir under the auspices of Bel Canto, the choral ensemble for which I am Music Director.

    I don’t actually conduct the group, but I oversee their conductor, and help with repertoire. Their first performance was this Christmas: Britten’s CEREMONY OF CAROLS. I have to tell you that it took me back to our days in the Cathedral Choir.

    I enjoy reading your posts, and knowing that you are doing so well.

    Warm regards,

    Rick Hynson

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